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Friday, January 28, 2011

Self-immolation: Performing Protest with Fire -- Part 1: Background

Introduction: the Jan. 2011 regime change in Tunisia can be traced back to a single trigger event - On Dec 17th a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi was publicly abused and humiliated by the police for selling  vegetables without a permit. Frustrated at the obstacles to simply making a living and the denial of simple human dignity he publicly set himself on fire. The jarring intensity of the act caught the attention of the Tunisian public, who strongly identified with the young man’s plight. Several more incidents of self immolation followed in Tunisia, as well as in Algeria and Egypt, and majorly contributed to the burst of protests and revolutions across North African and the Middle East.

Self immolation as performed political protest has been a high profile practice since the early 1960’s, but until now has been largely unreported in the Arab world. Last years ago in Toronto I delivered a paper on self immolation. Given that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the catalyst for such unprecedented events in the middle east (including a string of subsequent self immolations) I wanted to cannibalize some of last year’s paper to shed a little light on this practice. This is part one of a three-part blog, part two can be found here.
(Note: Although the term self-immolation is most commonly used to designate the public performance of protest through suicide by fire it can be used much more broadly - to immolate simply means to sacrifice and carries no specificity with regards to ideology, methodology or motivation.)

son llamas
los ojos y son llamas lo que miran,
llama la oreja y el sonido llama,
brasa los labios y tizón la lengua,
el tacto y lo que toca, el pensamiento
y lo pensado, llama el que lo piensa,
todo se quema, el universo es llama,
arde la misma nada que no es nada
sino un pensar en llamas, al fin humo:
no hay verdugo ni víctima...
-Octavio Paz

Performing the act:
On June 11, 1963 Vietnamese Tich Quang Duc, Buddhist monk and head abbot for a large Buddhist monastery stepped out of a small car on an unremarkable Saigon street. Approximately 200 other monks were already present, and upon his arrival they formed a wide circle around their abbot as passersby stepped back and took notice.  After brief conversation with a few of his fellow monks, TQD walked to the center of the street-space ringed by monks and onlookers and settled into a cross-legged meditation posture.

He had with him a plastic jerry-can partially filled with gasoline. Two of his fellow monks emptied the contents of the can over him and moved to the boundary outlined by approximately 200 other Buddhist monks and nuns.  Tich Quong Duc recited a short mantra to the Buddha of compassion, struck a match, and lit the gasoline that was soaking into his clothes and the packed dirt road beneath him. As he burned other monks chanted into a bullhorn, "A monk Burns himself to death.  A monk becomes a martyr."  AP photographer Malcolm Brown and New York Times writer David Halberstam were present for the event, having come on the recommendation of a Vietnamese journalist who insisted, “Something is going to happen. You should come." Thanks to the presence of the two reporters the act was captured on camera and in newsprint; their retelling of the story through words and images seared the idea of self-immolation into the global vocabulary.

Prior to that event the idea of self immolation was a foreign concept to most of the world, but despite its novelty the intensity of the performance gave it immediate and dramatic relevance – particularly in the light of civil rights struggles in the United States and fresh memories of Gandhi’s legacy in India. Other ideological movements appropriated the tactic to other settings and other causes, but Tich Quang Duc’s initial iconic act on that hot Saigon morning still stands as the original performance against which all subsequent self immolations are judged. Despite the fact that other examples of fiery self immolation can be found in the historical records of Buddhism in China and Southeast Asia, this singular act captured on film clearly established Tich Quong Duc as the grand patriarch of modern self immolation's genealogy of performance.

Between 1963 in 1975 dozens more Vietnamese monks performed their own variations on Tich Quong Duc’s grim street theater protest suicide. Others also recognized the compelling nature of the act and its potential for impact - it was borrowed, cited, and reenacted in different settings, under different circumstances, and for different causes, showing its versatility as means of protest and self expression. Even in Vietnam, it was used to send multiple messages depending on the political environment. The first cases of self immolation in Vietnam were in protest to the abuse and disenfranchisement of Buddhists under the predominantly Catholic Diem regime.  After Diem’s overthrow, the monks utilized self immolation as a tool to protest the immorality and brutality of the broader Vietnam conflict and the American role in Indochina. Following the US withdrawal the monks utilized self immolation as a protest against their mistreatment by the Communists government. During this same time (1963-1975) at least four Americans were inspired by Tich Quong Duc to perform self immolation in protest to the Vietnam War, as a declaration of solidarity with the actions of the Buddhist monks, as a nonviolent expression of protest against injustice, and a plea for peace.

Simultaneously, between 1966 and 1969 an even larger wave of self immolations took place in India. Dalits protesting the caste system inequalities that resulted in a grossly unequal distribution of opportunities, services and access to resources – a situation deemed unjust and inhumane by the lower Indian castes. India experienced a second wave of these protests in the 1990’s, when another large wave of Indian self immolation took place against disenfranchisement and exclusion of those same groups from colleges and employment. Additionally, during the late 60’s and early 70’s several similarly enacted instances of self immolation took place in Eastern Europe as protests against the occupation of several Eastern European countries by Communist Russia and remonstrations for the failure of the west to respond. These immolations took place in East Germany, Poland, Switzerland, France and Czechoslovakia, but by the 1980’s the practice of self immolation as a political tactic had generally dropped from favor outside of Asia. Aside from a small handful of exceptions, the vast majority of the self immolation events that have taken place in the 21st century have occurred in China, South Korea, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Tibet. It may be that the practice is also used parts of Asia that have a limited degree of global interconnectivity (e.g. Burma and North Korea).

Characteristics of the act.
“To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.” -Tich Nat Han
It may seem obvious to state this, but self immolation is traditionally a tactic employed by the disempowered, regardless of its religious or ideological pedigree. As DeCertau states, "The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them.” In this case, the actions of Tich Quang Duc provided the basic script, which is now citationally evoked in each subsequent performance of self immolation (deliberately or not). This supplies the act of self immolation with some common overtures. Self immolation is generally performed as an expression of protest against injustice, prefigured upon the premise that all human life has value. The clear dissemination of this message is essential to the act of self immolations, and the effectiveness of the practice is in large part contingent upon the unignorability of the performance. It is a jarring and unsettling specter: a human being publicly engulfed in flames by their own hand and free will, It is in no way a private act, and it is done with an audience in mind; an audience that varies according to its message and setting. Some variations of the act seem directed outwards towards a global audience (particularly the Czechoslovakian and early Vietnamese examples of self immolation). Others, like those in India and South Korea seem to be much more domestically oriented, intended to convince or remonstrate a narrower local audience. It is not always clear if this is the case, reception in the international news may not be in accordance with immolators’ objectives.

One continual insistence made by researchers into the issue of self immolation, and by close friends of the self immolators is that their actions are not the work of mentally unbalanced individuals. Even the initial performance by Tich Quong Duc was defended as rational and constructive by his friend and colleague, fellow Buddhists monk Tich Nat Han. “I explained to her that the venerable Tich Quang Duc was over 70, that I had lived with him for nearly 1 year at Long-Vinh pagoda and found him a very kind and lucid person, and that he was calm and in full possession of his mental facilities when he burned himself.”

Based on the journals of self immolators and interviews with people who knew them well, it seems to generally be the case that the act is only planned for a few days or weeks before being implemented, usually precipitated by a relevant event, or a prior self immolation. Often times self immolations come in clusters or waves over a period of days or weeks (See "The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines" by  Loren Coleman). This singularly bounded act is thusly given unity of ideology and action. It needs little preparation, simply a location, a match, a flammable liquid, and conviction. In the words of DeCertau, “The intellectual synthesis of these given element takes the form, however, not as a discourse, but of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the opportunity is "seized". This is particularly relevant because another important characteristic of self immolation is the speed inherent to the act. The event must be executed swiftly, or the practitioner risks interruption by the authorities and a dilution of message. Self-discipline and conviction grant credibility to political issues, and the painfully terminal nature of self immolation is no exception. The extended suffering provides a secondary platform, however.  An ideological message that might otherwise be blunted or misappropriated can be clarified and repeated by a survivor.

Self immolation is dramatically different than the other well known form of protest suicide: hunger strikes. Hunger strikes are usually conducted with a specific outlined goal or set of goals that, if achieved, will prevent the death of those protesting. Self immolation is not presented as a threat to ensure concessions, it is not used as leverage but as a spectacle, instead; a remonstration and a cry of outrage whose immediate goal is self-death in the hope of later equity towards others. A hunger strike is stretched out over days and weeks, slowly intensifying as the possibility of death approaches, whereas self immolation can reach its climax long before any remedying action can be taken. The visible intensity of self immolation is the better part of its power. Movie footage from Tich Quang Duc’s 1963 performance shows nearby police officers standing agog, unable to act, and overwhelmed by the reality of the tableau before them.

(End part 1)

Part 2 is here


  1. Very interesting. But incorrect about the two waves of Indian immolations. The 1960s wave were South Indians protesting against the imposition of the North Indian language, Hindi. Though there was a caste element, it was more about linguistic identity. The 1990s wave was by upper caste Indians protesting the growing loss of educational seats, etc, to lower castes because of government policy.